In one of the talks I give, I use a picture of African women carrying large jugs of water on their heads. Given this is usually a talk on collaboration, I get lots of puzzled looks. The picture is not about collaboration, but to make a point and be a focus for a story.

African Women.jpg
Figure 1 — Are you measuring the right thing?

A bureaucrat from the U.N. noticed all the women in the village walking with large water barrels on their heads. As he watched, the women walked 10 miles round trip everyday to the river to get water for cooking and cleaning. The bureaucrat thought this was unfortunate and a stress on the women, so he persuaded the U.N. engineers to build a beautiful well in the middle of the village.

When it was done, none of the women used the well, and he would see them everyday walking to the river with the large water jugs on their heads. Finally, out of frustration the bureaucrat asked one of the women, “Why do you walk 10 miles to the river to get water every day when there is a wonderful new well in the middle of your village?” The women replied, “We don’t mind the walk, it gives us time to talk with each other and catch up, and besides, it gives us some time away from our husbands!”

What Makes a Community?

The point of the story was the right solution for the wrong problem. But it is also a fable on measuring the right thing. If measurement allows us to know something, to bring it into conscious thought, that means we have a chance of changing it. This is true in online communities also. Is the number of community members actually a good metric to use? Is the number of page views also really a metric of anything but the amount of ADD your community has?

How many of those are active community members (ones that post), and how many are lurkers? Looking at the quality of what is posted (as rated by the community itself) and how often might be a good ratio of community quality. But the speed of response of a community does seem to be a good metric not only of engagement, but also of content quality. Chip Rodgers, who runs the developer communities at SAP, once told me that if someone in the community asked a technical question, he/she could count on getting 6-7 good answers within a few minutes. I also asked this question of Sean Iverson who runs the Cisco Learning Network (a community of over a million people). His response was pretty much the same: several good answers within a few minutes.

But sites like Quora, Yahoo Answers, etc. can also provide you with good answers, provided you have asked the right question. At least in the case of Yahoo Answers, I am not sure this comprises a community. However, I think the goal of Quora is to take this a step further and create a community not only around the question and answers, but also the threaded discussion that surrounds them.

Quora calls itself “A continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it.”

Quora also has personal profiles, so you know a bit more about who is answering your question and what other questions they have answered. Like Twitter, you are followed by people and can follow other people. Here is a question I asked on Quora and some of the answers I received.

Consumer vs. Enterprise Communities

Communities may have different goals and purposes. Communities of practice try to help their members with the best process or solution in a specific topic area. In learning communities, the members help each other to learn and improve (for example, help with passing a standardized test). But what about enterprise communities? Is their goal to store documents and support internal communications?

I recently was briefed by two very different internal enterprise community tools: Telligent and NewsGator.


I had a recent briefing with NewsGator, which runs only on SharePoint (with all the +s and -s that implies) and is really the “social” layer looking to enhance SharePoint. A few years ago this may have been a risky strategy, as others like SocialText and Mindtouch also provided social enhancement on SharePoint (2007). NewsGator saw that many of the IT departments at client companies had already committed to SharePoint for internal collaboration, so that is when they made the jump.

And jump with both feet they did. They have a good relationship with Microsoft and know 18 months in advance what is coming. They were also U.S. Partner of the Year for Microsoft. NewsGator knew about SharePoint 2010 and its incompatibilities with MOSS 2007 and provided tools to help with that migration. They do run into other community or social tools like Jive and Lithium, but they see these used mostly for external communities. Actually, we have also seen this at a few of our Silicon Valley clients.

Although NewsGator can be offered as a hosted product, 80-90% of revenues come from licensing of social sites. That means that most IT departments want to have control over their SharePoint servers and the same “on-premise” control of NewsGator. Some of the more social aspects of NewGator, like reputation, rating and ranking, come directly from their acquisition of Tomoye in 2010. This acquisition also gave them significant traction with the government and military, which they were lacking. Along with the fact that Tomoye has been around and running online communities for almost a decade and is also built on the dot net architecture, it was a good match of both skills and technology.

NewsGator acquired 16 people from Tomoye, bringing their number of employees currently up to 90. With about 250 customers and about 2.5 million seats, their average deal size is about 10,000 seats for $100,000, and they claim they are a steal (much lower TCO) compared to competing solutions. NewsGator was started in 2004 and has had several rounds of venture funding, and plan to become profitable by Q4 2011.

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